Animal emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them and so do they. We aren’t alone in the emotional arena.
I am a professor of biology who has been studying animal passions and beastly virtues for more than 30 years. During the time I have studied animal emotions, I have seen the field grow from one clouded with skepticism – wondering if animals feel – to a field in which we readily acknowledge that animals have emotions in their own way, just as we do.
Since the publication of my book “The Smile of a Dolphin,” there have been far fewer skeptics.
The pertinent question has become why animal emotions have evolved rather than if they’ve evolved. We no longer have to put quotes around words such as “happy” or “sad” when we talk about how Fido the dog is feeling.
Reputable scientific journals are now publishing essays on joy in rats and grief in elephants.
It’s “bad biology” to argue against the existence of animal emotions. Scientific research in evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology, and social neuroscience, along with our own personal observations, support the view that many animals have rich and deep emotional lives.
These feelings catalyze and regulate social encounters among friends, lovers and competitors. They serve as a social glue to bond animals, including humans, with one another.
That’s why we form closer relationships with other animals than we do with rocks – even pet rocks.
Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolutionary continuity describe differences among species as differences in degree rather than kind. These ideas argue strongly for the presence of animal emotions in a wide range of species.
Emotions like empathy are the key to cooperation and bonding and thus to survival – without them, animals, human and nonhuman, would perish. That’s how important they are.
And there are always surprises. Just when we think we’ve seen it all, new scientific data and stories appear to force us to reassess our stereotypes. We know that mammals share the neuroanatomical structures and neurochemical pathways that are important in human feelings.
As scientific data accumulate, the evidence for animal emotions becomes irrefutable.
Mice are empathic rodents, cows can be moody, sheep prefer the company of friends and chickens are sentient beings who suffer in tiny battery cages.
There are pleasure-seeking iguanas, amorous whales, elephants who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, pissed off baboons who beat the stuffing out of others, sentient fish and a sighted dog who serves as a Seeing Eye dog for his canine buddy.
I often begin my lectures with the question “Is there anyone in this audience who thinks that dogs don’t have feelings – that they don’t experience joy and sadness?” I’ve never seen a single hand waving to and fro, even in scientific gatherings.
But if I ask “How many of you believe that dogs have feelings?” almost every hand is waving wildly and the people are smiling and nodding up and down in agreement as if it’s a no-brainer.
I agree that it’s a no-brainer, and at my presentation at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Coffman Union theater, you’ll see that I’m not alone in thinking this, even among my highly respected scientific peers.
Many people who conduct invasive research on animals that causes pain, suffering and often death also live with dogs to whom they impugn rich cognitive skills and deep emotional lives.
To get a conversation going, I often ask researchers, “Would you do this to your dog?”
Usually they’re startled to hear this question. They act uncomfortable, breaking eye contact and fidgeting as if they can’t get away from me soon enough.
However, this is a very serious question – why would we do something to rats, pigs and monkeys that we would not do to our own pets?
Since animals have emotions just as humans do, we must consider their preferences and points of view.
Animals are sentient beings who experience the ups and downs of daily life, and we must keep this in mind when we interact with them or discuss their place in classrooms, laboratories, zoos, circuses, rodeos and slaughter- houses.
There’s no doubt whatsoever that animal emotions must inform discussions about what we can and cannot do to them.
Our relationship with nonhuman animals is a complex, ambiguous and challenging affair, and we must continually reassess how we should interact with our animal kin.
As humans we have the power to do almost anything we want. However, we also have the knowledge that animals are emotional beings, and with that knowledge comes the enormous responsibility and obligation to treat other beings with respect, appreciation, compassion and love.
Animal emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them and so do they. We must never forget this.
Marc Bekoff is a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Please send comments to [email protected]